I’m involved in a lot of projects both in and out of work, and people have often asked how I keep it all running at once. The simple answer is I don’t. This post came to me as I was driving back from a fast food place and thinking about where my time management strategy has broken down.

First off, the phrase “out of spoons” is one that my parents and grand parents have said before, but I have to give credit to my manager at work who used it recently to describe the situation our operations group was near with the number of projects we were committing to. In general the idea is that you have some pool of spoons for the day and you dip into this balance as you do things.

I work from a slightly different version of this where the spoons are a token pool in much the same way as a counting semaphore. Counting semaphores allow multiple workers to spin off and perform some amount of work, but only up to some maximum number. If more workers want to spin off than the semaphore’s maximum value, they will start start backing up. In well written systems this results in a smooth queuing of work. In less well written systems this results in an exciting few seconds as the system slows to a crawl, then an exciting failure as the stack explodes and the application falls over.

I tend to take this one step further, and go ahead and issue out more spoons than I have in a calculated risk that not all the people having a claim to a spoon will come knocking at the same time. In general this works well because I am involved in enough projects across enough groups of people that there shouldn’t normally be any kind of synchronizing factor to people needing things from my time. This is similarly how fractional reserve banking works, which is where I pull that term in. In the steady state case, there’s no synchronizing factor that would require 100% of outstanding claims to be satisfied simultaneously.

So why am I writing this post today? Something, somewhere has gone wrong and I have more people calling in their spoon claims than I have spoons to give. Foolishly, I’m still trying to honor all claims in the order they were received, which you should not attempt to duplicate at home (trained idiot on a closed course, etc). I do still think this is a good solution for managing time, because it allows me to dramatically over-commit and then maintain a relatively constant level of effort even as various projects are spinning up and down, which works well for me.

I think though I’m going to start actually tracking all outstanding commit on paper somewhere as I think that got me into trouble here just doing the accounting in my head. If you have any recommendations for project tracking and management software that isn’t Asana and isn’t in any way shape or form made by Atlassian, let me know.